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Syrians face toxic time-bomb of radiation, poison and pollution

Campaigners say Syria has been sullied by war, as cocktail of cancer-causing and radioactive chemicals leech into the ground and fill the air
Children search rubble for wood for heating and cooking in rebel-held Zamalka, eastern Damascus (AFP)

Syria faces public health catastrophes that will linger for decades due to toxic rubble dust, oil fire pollution and the US-led coalition's use of depleted uranium weapons on Islamic State targets, campaigners have warned.

The US last week admitted it had fired armour-piercing DU ammunition in its war against IS, and had hit not only military targets but also un-armoured civilian targets such as oil trucks, and despite promising otherwise.

Meanwhile, health and environment experts say rubble and dust produced by years of bombing and fighting in built-up areas could have huge health impacts, as fine particles thrown into the atmosphere cause numerous respiratory illnesses, and add to pollution caused by the bombing of oil infrastructure.

'Depleted uranium [is] a radioactive, toxic material. No state would ever accept exposure in peacetime'

- Wim Zwijnenburg of the Dutch campaign group, PAX

The Dutch peace organisation PAX said the use of DU was storing up health problems similar to those that have ravaged neighbouring Iraq since the wars of 1991 and 2003.

Cities such as Fallujah have experienced huge spikes in cancers and deformities among newborns following the widespread use of DU weapons by US and allied forces.

"As was the case in Iraq, [Syrian] civilians have expressed fear over potential exposure to depleted uranium, considering the fact it's a radioactive, toxic material," PAX's Wim Zwijnenburg told Middle East Eye, after a recent visit to the oil-producing area of Qayyarah in Syria.

"No state would ever accept any depleted uranium exposure in peacetime and therefore depleted uranium is heavily regulated. We do not see why these regulations should be thrown overboard in conflict."

Poisoned wells

Zwijnenburg said the threat of DU sickness added to other pollution crises caused by the destruction of oil wells taken over by IS.

"It was apocalyptical to see the landscape filled with burning oil wells, dried up oil tar and blackened earth," he said.

According to Zwijnenburg, seven wells were still burning, but were expected to be out within two months.

Nevertheless, there are still major concerns from humanitarian organisations over the health impacts of the fires, Zwijnenburg said.

A pipeline ablaze outside the city of Homs in 2012 (AFP)

Thousands of makeshift oil refineries have sprung up in Syria, posing environmental and health risks to nearby communities.

Oil fires posed immediate health threats through acrid smoke as well as environmental damage, Zwijnenburg said, due to the production of toxins such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen and particulate matter. 

"The long-term impact of soil and groundwater would need to be addressed and clean-up and remediation of sites is needed to prevent exposure of civilians to hazardous materials as a result the fall-out of the smoke and oil pollution," Zwijnenburg said. 


Turned to dust 

Richard Sullivan, of King’s College London's conflict and health research group, meanwhile said Syria was already suffering through the "enormous impact" of toxic chemicals thrown into the air by five years of war.

According to Zwijnenburg, an estimated 60 per cent of buildings in Syria have been heavily damaged or destroyed since 2011, releasing toxic substances from rubble including cancer-causing asbestos and heavy metals.

The Toxic Remnants of War network said the pollution effects were both "ubiquitous and under-studied". 

"When buildings are [hit] by munitions or damaged through pressure waves generated by explosions, building materials are pulverised, generating large volumes of dust," said researcher Andy Garrity.

Exposure to such dust "can have both physical and chemical impacts on health" as they contain mixtures of common building materials, such as cement, metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, silica, asbestos and other synthetic fibres. 

Electrical hardware commonly found in buildings are also potential contaminant sources, Garrity said. 

The effects of rubble exposure vary, from immediate irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin, to lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis. 

Polychlorinated biphenyls are believed to cause cancers. 

Emilia Wahlstrom, an environmental disaster expert for the UN, said immediate humanitarian responses to war often focused on short-term threats, while environmental and health complications were often overlooked.

But she said seemingly immediate issues, such as rubble blocking aid convoys, were also long-term problems, as rubble released toxic materials into the soil and contaminated water supplies.

A depleted future

Environmental crises from two major wars in 1991 and 2003 continue to sicken large numbers of civilians in Iraq, and present a worst-case scenario for the future of Syria.

Cancer rates in Iraq are significantly higher than pre-1991 levels in areas such as Fallujah and Basra, while birth defects are also reported - one study says 15 per cent of babies born since 2003 suffer congenital deformities.

US army depleted uranium munitions (AFP)

The heavy use of depleted uranium has been cited as a major factor in these health crises - although no government has specifically acknowledged its effects, and PAX says it has found no links between DU and birth defects. 

While PAX said the majority of the 2003 depleted uranium strikes were outside, or on the outskirts of, heavily populated areas, "those strikes that were in towns and cities often saw proportionately more DU used".

Late last year, PAX released a report with the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, based on "the chance release of targeting data" from 1,116 attacks in Iraq by A-10 'tank-buster' jets between 20 March and 15 April, 2003.

The data revealed the US and UK fired 116,000kg of depleted uranium ammunition in more than 1,000 locations.

Depleted uranium is a poisonous heavy metal, and also slightly radioactive. DU burns up when it hits a target, and the resultant compounds can spread across a wide area.

"Significantly, the data confirm that only 33 per cent of the A-10s’ targets were tanks or armoured vehicles, with the weapons also used against light vehicles, buildings and unmounted troops," the report said.

PAX's Zwijnenburg said he feared the same could happen in Syria unless the US coalition halted its use of DU munitions.

"This will put more burden on affected communities already struggling with the direct impact of the war on their health and wellbeing," he said.

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